Picture a lake, vast as the ocean, surrounded by steep heels and volcanoes. In spite of the altitude, 1.562 meters above the sea level, a sort of the jungle is growing over the shore and the hills. Tropical birds, butterflies and squirrels bustle among palm and banana trees, holding on to lianas. Bright sunshine light reveals the array of flowers, vivid as only fresh blooms can be.
This is the place, where, according to many Mayan legends, the world was born.
Around the site of pilgrimage and sacred ceremonies since 200 B.C., several stories and theories exist, revolving around the big question: What is the force, that attracts people to Guatemalan highlands over the span of more than 2200 years and what is the energy, that makes them stay? From personal experience, the special effect can be confirmed, planning to visit for a week, the lake took hostage of me for a whole month.
Reports about the area of Lake Atitlán being like some kind of vortex of energy, transforming and taking over control, are persistent, also stories about people, who came but never left. With the three volcanoes dominating the skyline anything is possible, according to Mayans, the first pyramids, which they believed had a similar energetic effect, were actually the mountains of eruptions.
The secret of Samabaj
The sunken city of Samabaj, hidden somewhere near Carre de Oro close to Santiago town, was a place of ceremonies on the island, which got overflowed more than 1700 years ago. Still underresearched, Samabaj could be a key to the secret, but lacking financial support and the right motivation, it still holds the mystery close to its Mayan heart.
Fun fact? At the very place where the city is supposed to be, there is an original ”boa constrictor eating an elephant” on the shore; a hill, which resembles the illustration from the novel The little prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry spent quite some time in Guatemala, so speculations, from where he got the idea, are in order.
There are various Mayan sacred sites around the lake, one can find them on top of the volcanoes, hills, under the big trees and behind the stone formations. Knowledge of Mayan sacred traditions, including complex Mayan calendar and astrology, is still widely concealed, unknown even to Mayan descendants, who are slowly learning the kosmology. The knowledge is mostly transmitted from mouth to mouth, gradually letting in the foreign souls, who hear its calling. The concept of connection, between human body, mind, soul and the universe, is an underlining base, on which intricate philosophy is built.
The day in Mayan calendar holds a combination of energies, which are divided into three different systems: The long count, the Tzolkin known as divine calendar and Haab, a civil one. The three wheels turn each at its own pace; their cycles last 2,880,000 days, 260 days (20 x 13) and 365 days (20 x 18 + 5). Each day has a unique combination until the new cycle begins, a concept that leads many people to believe in the idea of the end of the world.
Each day in first two calendars is represented by a glyph, a visual sign of the present energy. Their depictions fill many altars and spaces, but their meaning is not only visible, but each also has its own written counterpart, which compliments the message. The Mayan astrology sign is then a precise composition of different influences, that determine a character of a person, weaknesses and strengths, tendencies along with inclinations. Because of its complicated nature, it’s freakishly accurate, in personality description as well as in daily insight.
From 11th to 15th February 2018, the solar calendar turned its wheel and Uayeb, the five-day-long final month also known as ”time out of time” of the civil calendar occurred. This is the point of celebration, gratitude towards energies of the past year and excitement about the upcoming change. Five days of ceremonies, happening at all different times of the day, concise around the New Year’s season. The locals and a few inquisitive foreigners gathered around sacred places in Lake Atitlan, honouring the year of the deer glyph, also titled Kej or Manik’.
The ceremony was joyful, fitting the occasion. The participants filled the round fire pit with candles, each colour pointing to the corresponding direction of the sky. On top of them, they placed offerings in the form of sugar, milk, cocoa, and flowers. After the spoken ritual in one of the Mayan languages, they burnt the fire and continued with gratitudes, slowly incorporating some music and dance. The ceremony closed with a special deer dance, performed with a decorated deer head on the top of the performer. Time flew by, nothing else existed but the spring forest, open hearts and a sense of honour.
Maximón, the sinful saint
The town of Santiago, based at the southern bank of Lake Atitlán, is a home for a Mayan deity, Maximón. Well dressed and covered in hats, the wooden saint is silently present to whoever visits him while smoking a cigarette or pouring a shot of Quetzalteca, the local liquor drink. The room in which he settles for this year is overflown with flowers, candles, incense and different sacred objects, crucified Jesus and another saint, laying in the glass coffin. The practice is simple, one offers some money, which they stuck behind the saint’s tie, a current guardian starts the ritual and quickly verbalise an invocation, covering anything from health to financial abundance and such.
The history of Maximón is an interesting one, he was a real living Mayan shaman, who helped indigenous people battle the Spanish Colonialists. Being close to indestructible, the Mayan medicine man survived several attempts of murder, so the Spaniards decided it is best to quadruple him and bury his remains in four different places around Lake Atitlán. But Mayan people didn’t give up, from the four trees, growing on the four of his graves, they created a statue, with Spanish features, but Mayan heart. They called him San Simon, to fool the enemies, but secretly they still prayed to Mayan gods.
The story is just one of many weavings of Mayan religion and Christianity, which can be seen all over rural Guatemala. The sight of a person in the church, praying in the Mayan language to the Mayan god, is nothing uncommon. It reveals the deep roots of Mayan traditions, even after many years of complete occupation on very different levels, the essence is still there, untouched.